North Korea: How to Approach the Nuclear Threat
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Thank you, Dr. Kim, for the introduction, and for the invitation to speak. And thanks to all of you for coming.
The Institute for Corean-American Studies has taken on the mission of “advancing humanity, liberty, peace and security among all nations and all people.”
That’s a noble mission, a mission we believe in as well. So today, I want to update you on America’s work on one part of it – advancing peace and security on the Korean peninsula.
Specifically, I’ll speak about our efforts – in coordination with partners – to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization; to set the stage for North Korea to open up; to choose a path of peace and integration into the world community; and ultimately for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
Understanding where we are today requires context. So with the advantage of having been present at some important moments of Korea diplomacy in the last quarter-century, I’ll try to provide that context.
As a young Foreign Service Officer, I worked under the extraordinary scholar and diplomat Jim Laney (who has been recognized by ICAS) and who was then Ambassador to the Republic of Korea. In the summer of 1994, we helped prepare former President Jimmy Carter for his trip across the demilitarized zone.
Tensions at that moment were extremely high. The International Atomic Energy Agency had discovered two years earlier that North Korea was lying about its plutonium program. The U.N. Security Council demanded access for inspectors to the North's nuclear facilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards agreement and was preparing a resolution to impose sanctions.
The DPRK warned that sanctions would be treated as "an act of war," started the process to withdraw from the NPT, and began unloading its reactor in order to reprocess the spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.
It is not hyperbole to say that it felt like the brink of war.
In briefing Jimmy Carter the day before he entered North Korea, I made two main points: first, that face-to-face diplomacy is an essential tool for influencing the DPRK's behavior; it is a mistake to think of dialogue as a reward for good behavior.
Second, Carter's goal should be to persuade Kim Il-Sung to break the escalatory cycle and end the nuclear crisis through substantive negotiations – the terms of which were already largely understood.
Ultimately, Carter secured a commitment from Kim for a complete and verified freeze of his nuclear program and to grant necessary access to the IAEA inspectors.
The immediate crisis was averted, and the U.S. and the DPRK began negotiations in Geneva led by Bob Gallucci, a good friend of mine, and then-Vice Foreign Minister Kang Suk-ju. I was a member of the U.S. team that negotiated the Agreed Framework, which was signed in October of 1994.
The Agreed Framework was straightforward: North Korea committed to a nuclear weapons-free Peninsula and agreed to stop producing plutonium, to shut down its reactors, and submit its entire program to IAEA safeguards and inspections.
As part of a face-saving fiction that the DPRK's nuclear program was for civilian power generation, we agreed to provide heavy fuel oil and, with Japan and South Korea, build proliferation-resistant light water reactors to make up for the "lost electricity."
We also established a path toward broader rapprochement. The text spelled out that as progress was made, we would fully normalize diplomatic and economic relations and, quote, “work together for peace and security.” This was the path to finally putting the Korean War behind us.
The Agreed Framework achieved its immediate goal – plutonium production stopped and IAEA monitoring resumed.
The agreement held over the following eight years, although there were implementation problems on both sides – we had difficulty getting full funding for heavy fuel oil and for the light water reactors, and the exchange of diplomatic liaison offices never took place.
Looking at the big picture, the North squandered the opportunity to open to the world. Instead, it sought another path to the bomb – uranium enrichment. When we discovered this program in 2002, the Agreed Framework was over and the North resumed plutonium production.
The following year marked the beginning of the Six-Party Talks hosted by China. One of the key lessons we had learned was the necessity of staying coordinated with North Korea’s neighbors – South Korea, Russia, China, and Japan – so the North couldn’t play us off against each other.
And after four rounds of these Six-Party negotiations over two years, we all agreed to the Joint Statement in September 2005. The Joint Statement covered the same main areas as the Agreed Framework – the North would abandon its weapons programs and resume inspections “at an early date.” We agreed to revisit providing light water reactors.
The Joint Statement also expanded on the Framework. Because it was plurilateral instead of bilateral, it included provisions for strengthened engagement and economic cooperation between the North and each of the other five parties, including a commitment by Japan to move toward normalization.
The Joint Statement included a “negative security assurance” – essentially that the U.S. would not attack the North. And it said the relevant parties, quote, “will negotiate a permanent peace at an appropriate separate forum.”
But you know where the story goes. The North said they wouldn’t turn off their reactors until the new ones were ready, and as diplomacy tanked, they detonated their first nuclear weapon on October 9th, 2006.
After heroic efforts by my predecessor Chris Hill, and our current Special Representative Sung Kim, North Korea walked out of the Six-Party Talks and declared the process "dead."
And soon after the fourth American President to deal with North Korea's nuclear program, Barack Obama, took office, he was greeted with a ballistic missile test in the form of a “satellite launch,” and the North’s second nuclear detonation.
Why am I rehashing ancient history? Because the record makes it clear that the United States has consistently made a good faith effort to reach a denuclearization deal through diplomacy. We have always accepted that there would be give and take in a settlement and that legitimate concerns of the DPRK would need to be addressed. We want a negotiated solution!
President Obama came into office promising an outstretched hand to any foe that would unclench its fist. The first proof of this was engaging Ambassador Stephen Bosworth as our Special Representative for North Korea Policy. As you well know, he was truly a great diplomat, and we all mourn his recent passing.
Sung Kim and I accompanied Steve to Pyongyang in December 2009 to try to resume progress towards denuclearization, but the North Koreans would not engage. As if to underline the point, three months later they ambushed and sank the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, killing 50 ROK sailors.
Notwithstanding our efforts, and the efforts by Seoul and Beijing, the DPRK has been unwilling to engage in serious dialogue or real negotiations on the nuclear issue. Washington has made important headway with Myanmar, with Iran, with Cuba. But although the door is open, Pyongyang has refused to knock.
Now, analysts say that to advance the paramount goal of regime survival, the DPRK is pursuing “byungjin,” the notion that they can develop their economy and nuclear weapons simultaneously.
But North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear state. There is complete agreement on this, not only in the U.S., but in China, Russia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and many other countries.
Neither will we be diverted by their claims that their actions are justified / because the United States has “hostile policy” toward them / and that what’s needed is a Peace Treaty. These are diversionary tactics to shift the international community away from denuclearization.
So how is North Korea’s byungjin policy going? I think the answer is: not well.
First, internal stability: Kim’s latest provocations might have gained him domestic popularity points in the short run, especially given the strength of his propaganda machine.
But there is no doubt that his policies will cost him at home over time, as sanctions reduce his ability to keep buying off the military and elites.
Second, security: Pyongyang’s strategic posture is weakened – China and Russia are no longer interested or willing to defend this increasingly erratic and outlying regime, and are supporting tough sanctions in the Security Council.
Third, economically: the North continues to face fundamental, systemic problems. They can alleviate suffering a little by allowing a black market for food and basic goods and solar panels, but apparently they deem the political risk too great to open the economy more. And biting sanctions mean that if Kim doesn’t redirect his shrinking resources, things are just going to get worse.
Fourth, diplomatically: the North has never seen such a level of opprobrium and isolation, with so few diplomatic and economic partners. The international community refuses to drop denuclearization, much to the dismay of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
Pyongyang’s dependence on China has increased even as its relations with Beijing grow worse. President Xi’s travel to Seoul to meet with President Park Geun-hye, before meeting with the leader of the North, was unprecedented… as was Park’s decision to close the Kaesong industrial complex, the last economic link between the two countries.
This was a dramatic demonstration that when President Park says “no more business as usual,” she means it.
Furthermore, the North’s so-called diplomatic “charm offensive” has failed to stop the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Last week, it again condemned the North’s abuses by consensus, meaning that even “old friends” like Iran and Cuba have no interest in burning political capital on the North.
All in all, Kim Jong-un has nothing to show for all of his intransigence. He has made splashes in the ocean with missiles and detonated nuclear devices underground … but it has gotten him exactly nothing in terms of respect, security, economic support, or diplomatic recognition.
So, that’s Kim’s strategy. What’s ours? It’s simple: we will continue to take away his paths to byungjin through diplomacy, pressure, defense, and deterrence.
Diplomatically, as I’ve explained, we’ve united the world so that the North is more isolated than any country has ever been. But simultaneously, we are constantly reminding the North that we are ready, at any time, to engage in credible negotiations to reverse the situation.
The point is not to close doors to dialogue, it’s to close inauthentic ones that lead to dead ends. Because only then will the light shining through that last door of / serious negotiations on the nuclear issue be fully visible.
And if the North walks through that door to authentic negotiations that result in freezing, rolling back, and permanently ending its nuclear program… it will find the international community waiting for it in good faith – the other five parties, ASEAN, the EU – everyone.
The second prong is pressure – we have, with our partners, enacted and enforced some of the toughest sanctions in history on the North. We’ve enlisted greater Chinese cooperation, and Beijing has been constructive in pressuring the North on the nuclear issue.
As we encourage China to do more, implementing their commitments to enforce the tough new U.N. sanctions is the next step.
If denuclearization is the last thing on earth that North Korea’s leaders want to do, we need to make it the last thing on earth that they can do to secure their future.
The goal of sanctions is not to destroy North Korea, but to bring its leaders to their senses. The constriction on the DPRK’s access to foreign currency and foreign markets means a shortfall in funds for the nuclear program, for the missile program, for the Army, for the State Security apparatus, for industry, for electricity generation, and for the gold watches and luxury cars that help keep the elite cadres loyal.
The goal of sanctions is not to harm the North Korean people – although the DPRK has regrettably prioritized offensive weapons over their livelihood. The goal is to bring North Korea’s leaders to the realization that there is no viable alternative to negotiations.
And mindful of the plight of the North Korean people, we have mobilized the international community to highlight the North’s human rights abuses through U.N. resolutions, the landmark Commission of Inquiry, and opening a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights field office in Seoul.
The third prong, as I mentioned, is deterrence. Even as we pursue diplomacy, we can’t let down our guard. Over the last several years, we’ve taken major steps to modernize our security alliances, and that work is ongoing.
With the Republic of Korea, we’ve updated the framework governing the transfer of wartime operational control of alliance forces, and the Special Measures Agreement through which the ROK provides economic and other support for our presence.
After this year’s nuclear and missile tests, we’ve jointly decided to begin consultations on the potential deployment of the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea. And a few weeks ago, we held the largest joint defensive military drills our two nations have ever done.
We have also modernized our alliance with Japan, another frequent target of North Korea’s threats. Notably, we’ve refreshed defense guidelines which hadn’t been updated in over 17 years. The new guidelines prepare us to work more closely together to counter any threats that arise.
So, how is our strategy going? Consider the facts:
The U.N. Security Council has rejected North Korea’s attempts to sidestep their obligation to denuclearize.
The U.N. Human Rights Council has rejected North Korea’s attempts to hide from the horrors it perpetrates on its own people.
The five nations most directly involved in working towards denuclearization are more closely coordinated than ever, and the North is more isolated.
International resolve to fully enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270 is firm.
And it is clear to all that America is rock-solid in our resolve to stand by our allies and achieve the goal of denuclearization.
What should be clear to you by now is that the United States and our partners have not given up on diplomacy — we’ll keep trying to find a way forward.
And that way forward isn’t hard to imagine. It starts with North Korea freezing all its nuclear activities, like Iran did while it negotiated. And it starts with a credible declaration of the North’s past activities and IAEA inspection of its nuclear sites as a first step. Meeting basic international obligations is not a lot to ask.
Then we’d resume work where the Six-Party talks left off — based on the 2005 Joint Statement.
All of North Korea’s stated concerns can be dealt with on the basis of that agreement -- as long as it will take the necessary steps towards full denuclearization.
We have not walked back on our willingness to provide assurances and assistance to North Korea: with progress toward denuclearization we can promote economic cooperation and build a permanent peace.
President Park has laid out a vision for reintegrating North Korea and its people with the world – a vision based on the belief that all Koreans want to overcome division and build a better future.
We share that goal and support that vision. The United States strongly supports peaceful unification. We want to see a Korea that is whole, growing and at peace.
This can be achieved. We mustn’t give up.
I have a vivid memory of sitting in the East Room of the White House last year as President Obama stood alongside President Park after their summit. I heard President Obama state clearly that as we have shown with Cuba and Iran, the United States is prepared to engage nations with which we’ve had a troubled past. But Pyongyang needs to understand that it cannot cling to nuclear weapons.
We support a better vision — a unified Korea free from the fear of war and nuclear weapons.